October 17, 2012

How television influenced the Cold War

In last week's piece on TV campaign commercials, I mentioned Erik Barnouw’s book The Image Empire. I want to return to that book today, to look at something that we don’t think much about: the role that the regular television series played in the Cold War.

Understand, we’re not talking about news coverage. No, we’re talking about the average TV series – comedy, drama, western, movie – and how it may, consciously or subconsciously, have influenced viewers.

We can cut to the chase fairly quickly here. It is true that in the wake of the James Bond movies, there was something of a “spy mania” in entertainment circles. You had serious spy shows, slyly humorous spy shows, spy shows masquerading as westerns, spy spoofs. Not only were spy shows such as Mission: Impossible, I Spy, Get Smart and The Man (and later Girl) from U.N.C.L.E. sprouting up, but, as Barnouw points out, the trend was apparent even in established, non-spy programs.  "Even comedy series like I Dream of Jeannie, Mr. Ed, and The Lucy Show took up spy themes."

This was mostly because, as more than one person has pointed out, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and profit-making. Just as television had ridden through waves of westerns, police dramas and ethnic comedies, Hollywood was now in the throes of international espionage. Of course, the conflict between good and evil isn’t anything new – it dates back to the Bible, and had been a staple of television since the beginning. However, Barnouw sees a difference in this new wave of programming.
Like earlier action telefilms, the new cycle concerned struggles against evil men who had to be wiped out. Bosomy girls fitted easily into the picture. But in one respect the new wave departed from precedent. Older action heroes, especially the cowboy, had maintained a code of honor and fought fairly. This tradition was rapidly vanishing. When the U.S. Navy in a 77 Sunset Strip episode (“The Navy Caper”) hired a private eye to try to steal one of its top-secret gadgets – to test its own security arrangements against enemy powers pursuing the same objective – the hero’s instructions were: “You can lie, steal, cheat – whatever the enemy might do.” What followed was an epic adventure in deception and counterdeception.

After citing other examples, including Mission: Impossible’s “the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions” warning, Barnouw concludes that “The official lie was thus enshrined.”

Now, I’m not sure I go along with Barnouw’s thinking here.  TV's police officers were always going undercover, passing themselves off as people they were not. The private detective, especially of the Mike Hammer type, was forever operating outside the law, under a private code of ethics that could be seen as promoting the public welfare even as it might endanger the detective’s mortal soul.

At the same time, Barnouw does have a point. The policeman, like the cowboy, always had the potential of becoming a tragic hero, and Dragnet’s Joe Friday tracked down more than one dishonest cop brought down by his failure to follow procedure in his honest pursuit of justice. And it was always a given that the private eye was a different type of character, the dark side of society, performing a public service that the public (in the guise of the official organs of law enforcement) accepted only reluctantly. They may have secretly envied the P.I.’s freedom from official rules, but those rules were nonetheless respected.

Now, however, things were different.

In reality, life had never been as simple as it had been depicted in television.* An event such as the botched Bay of Pigs operation revealed the extent – the need, if you will – for the United States to take action in foreign countries in order to protect its own interests. Barnouw thinks this required an adjustment in the way we thought:

*Just as it was never as corrupt as it is often portrayed today.
To many Americans, accustomed to a national image of clean uprightness – the cowboy – the revelations were disturbing and called for some adjusting. They seemed to require either indignation or rationalization. For most people, rationalization was the easier solution. If our government had really developed a “department of dirty tricks” to organize putsches, unseat rulers, and murder when necessary, all masked by elaborate fictions, it must have been brought on by dire necessities.
Barnouw quotes an article by Robert Lewis Shayon in Saturday Review as to what was wrong with all this:
The heroes of Mission: Impossible, for pay and at government instigation, interfere directly in the affairs of foreign nations with whom we are at peace and from whom no direct threat to our safety emanates.
They break the laws of these nations.  It pretends that individual Americans are morally impeccable when they break the laws of a foreign nation under the shield of our ideology. . . in emergent nations the viewer may say: “The Americans are telling us, in these programs, that this is the way to run a society.”

The end result of such programming was that the viewer was subconsciously taught to "accept the government’s assertions without exception."

Here, I think Barnouw (and Shayon) is much too willing to attach a sort of moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the struggle between good and evil, one must be careful to use whatever resources are at hand while at the same time resisting the temptation to use the tools of evil against evil. That’s not an easy balance to maintain, but one must be willing to grant best intentions to those who, in their efforts to act in America’s best interests, may have crossed that line. In this sense Barnouw too often cynically dismisses the sincerity of those in the government who truly believed in the rightness of the American cause and were determined to act in its best interests.

These spy shows, Barnouw contends, work hand-in-hand with another facet of 60s programming.  For as the conflict in Vietnam grew, the administration "constantly tried to recapture the consensus of World War II by depicting the Vietnam expedition as a continuation of older struggles against tyranny." As such, it played into the growth of series set in World War II - shows popular not only because of their action, but because of their appeal to the many veterans in the viewing audience. Not coincidentally, they also portrayed a war from which America emerged victorious.

Dramas such as Combat, The Rat Patrol, The Gallent Men, Garrison's Gorrillas and Twelve O'Clock High and comedies like McHale's Navy and Hogan's Heroes were common in the 60s, as were toys like G.I. Joe, Mattel's Fighting Men, remote-controlled Tiger Tanks, and mock M-16 rifles.  The practical effect of all this, Barnouw suggests, was important.  While "[i]t was not the conscious intention of producers to buttress administration arguments linking Vietnam with World War II," nonetheless it was true that
[a] visitor from another planet watching United States television for a week during the Vietnam escalation period might have concluded that viewers were being brainwashed by a cunning conspiracy determined to harness the nation – with special attention to its young – for war. Of course there was no conspiracy. Manufacturers were making things for which they saw a market, promoting them through advertising agents, producers, and broadcasters who believed in serving the client. In so doing, all avoided anything that might seem to undermine current government policy – and thereby gravitated toward its support.

Though these shows didn't intend to produce such a result, "the rash of heroic and amusing World War II series, in conjunction with the flood of enemy-conspiracy drama, probably did just that."

Ultimately, I suppose the validity of Barnouw's contention rests on how influential you feel television is.  If you think sex and violence can have an objectivizing and dehumanizing effect on people, then it might well be true that the spy and war dramas of the 60s had, at least for a time, the effect of conditioning the viewer to be more inclined to accept the administration's pronouncements on the Cold War, and its persecution of the very hot war in Vietnam - not to mention a  trust of government in general and its ability to take on other efforts such as the War on Poverty.

But if television was indirectly responsible for creating this climate of acceptance, as Barnouw suggests, then it must also accept the responsibility for what came next. As the 60s turned to the 70s, and public opinion turned violently against the war, a new breed of television show would appear, with a far more outward anti-war slant.  Whereas the programs of the 60s encouraged trust in the government, the programs of the 70s would consciously, intentionally, tear down that trust and replace it with a cynicism that pervades modern culture to this day.  Maybe - likely - it would have happened even without television.  How long it would have taken, and how widespread it would have been, are questions that we can't answer.

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